[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of reflections and prayer posts from the biannual General Assembly of the PC(USA), offered by the Rev. Scott Clark, Chaplain and Associate Dean of Student Life at the San Francisco Theological Seminary.]
When I travel with my friend Janie Spahr, there’s this moment just before takeoff. We’ve settled into our seats. We’ve snapped our seatbelt buckles into place, low and tight across our hips. The plane takes that slow turn from the taxiway onto the runway. And then there’s a pregnant pause. At that moment, Janie smiles broadly, gives my hand a squeeze, and exclaims with rapturous joy, “Well, here we go!!!!” She and I have traveled into some pretty challenging circumstances. But in that moment of exclamation, how could I not want to set off on a holy adventure?!
I’m in-flight now, heading to Detroit for the weeklong General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) — the national gathering of our denomination. (I’m not traveling with Janie on this trip, but we did talk last night.) My friend Sonnie Swenston-Forbes helpfully has described General Assembly as “part family reunion, part trade convention, and part national governance meeting for a denomination.” It’s all that. And implicit in all that, it is church. It is worship and communion and prayer — writ large, and sometimes writ messy.
The General Assembly gathers every two years, each time in a different city, a different region of the country. Each regional “presbytery” elects “commissioners” — equal numbers of ministers and congregational leaders (“ruling elders”). There are also “advisory delegates” — so that the voting commissioners can hear from theological students, young adults, representatives from other denominations, and global partners. General Assembly is a governance meeting. The Assembly meets as a legislative, parliamentary body to pray and to discern and to set policy for the church. The Assembly gathers to think — denominationally — about what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ in faithful service to the world God loves. And while all that goes on — through committees, and recommendations, and debates, and votes — we do other gathering things — we worship, we share meals, we exchange ideas, we see what’s going on in the rest of the church.
This year, for me, it is an actual family reunion. My cousin Jill (first cousin, once removed) is a commissioner from northern Indiana, and she and I are looking forward to spending time together. It’s been almost ten years since my partner and I moved to California from Alabama, so I can’t wait to see good friends from First Presbyterian Church Birmingham. And there are friends from New York City, and Texas, and Southern California, and Tennessee.
I’m also traveling with colleagues from work. I’m the Chaplain and Associate Dean of Students at San Francisco Theological Seminary. We are excited about connecting with our broader seminary family — our alumni, folks who might be thinking about coming to seminary, friends from partner congregations, our valued colleagues at the other Presbyterian seminaries. We’ll have some time in the exhibit hall to connect with folks (Monday, 11:30am-2pm and Tuesday, 10am to 2pm). We’ll host a dessert reception on Tuesday night, and a seminary lunch on Wednesday. We are particularly excited about initiating and energizing conversations about where and how folks are innovating in ministry — as we prepare to launch our own Center for Innovation in Ministry this fall.
And, I’m gathering with a group of “overture advocates” from a good number of other presbyteries to urge the Assembly to move our denomination toward recognition of marriage equality — toward affirmation of the full dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and our families. The “business” of the Assembly generally originates in the local presbyteries. Presbyteries send “overtures” asking the Assembly to take action or to take a stand — to say and do and be all that we are called to in Jesus Christ. My presbytery (the Presbytery of the Redwoods) and a number of other presbyteries are bringing overtures to ask the denomination to amend its constitution to affirm marriage equality — to make clear that the pastoral care of the church in marriage extends to everyone without discrimination. (This is just one of a number of important issues before the Assembly.)
Right now, the church’s policy — created through a series of church court decisions — purports to exclude LGBT folks and our families from the church’s pastoral care in marriage. I’ve had the great privilege to serve as one of the church-lawyers for pastors (like my friend Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr) who have been brought up on disciplinary charges by the church for celebrating the marriages of same-gender couples. (Yes, that’s right, disciplinary charges for celebrating marriage and extending pastoral care to all families without discrimination.) Unfortunately, in the latest church court decisions, our Presbyterian supreme court (officially called the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission or GAPJC) has created a rule that says the Presbyterian ministers shouldn’t celebrate or officiate (or even offer marriage counseling!) to same-gender couples. The decision — decided by a very narrow margin — essentially says that when a same-gender couple comes to a pastor and asks the pastor to celebrate their marriage, the pastor should say “No,” and should turn the couple away from the church. Many of us believe that this is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ, which embraces all God’s children and has at its heart the love commandment. And, many others disagree.
So we will go and talk it out. Again. Sisters and brothers in Christ trying to live together faithfully even in our disagreement and difference. Seat-belts buckled. Holding hands. Wheels up. Here we go.
Scott Clark is the Chaplain and Associate Dean of Student Life at San Francisco Theological Seminary, a seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and of the ecumenical Graduate Theological Union. Additionally, Scott’s ministry includes advocacy for the full inclusion of all people within the life of the church. A former attorney, he has represented Presbyterian ministers who have been brought up on disciplinary charges by the church for celebrating the marriages of same-gender couples, and he currently serves on the board of More Light Presbyterians.
Beginning next week, Scott is participating in the national General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which will be considering a number of faith issues, including the marriage of same-gender couples. Scott is participating in the Assembly as an “Overture Advocate” (one of the advocates sent from regional presbyteries on a particular issue). With others, he is advocating for an amendment to the Presbyterian constitution that would affirm marriage equality for all people, including same-gender couples and their families. Scott also is participating in the General Assembly as part of the team representing San Francisco Theological Seminary, hoping to open and energize discussion about innovation in ministry and in theological education.